A few months ago, Feedstuffs magazine published an interesting article by Rod Smith discussing the obstacles that young farmers face. It reminded me of the importance of succession planning for the family farm.
“More than a third of U.S. farmers are 65 years old or older, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture” — a statistic that many of us have heard before. But how often do we really think about what that statistic means to the U.S. food and agriculture economy? If only 5% of farmers today are under 35 years of age, then what does that mean for the future of our industry?
It’s no secret that our children and grandchildren raised in production agriculture are finding jobs in an urban economy. Randy Merten at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture Food & Natural Resources (“CAFNR”) believes that the traditional farming lifestyle is no longer attractive to the younger generation. Furthermore, the high costs of land and overhead are additional obstacles (“If its difficult to take over the family farm, it’s really hard to start up a farm“). Understandably, I am a farmer’s daughter who also moved to the “Big City” to seek a career; however, I charge our agriculture organizations to concentrate on educational programs for the younger demographic and encourage these folks to stay in production agriculture.
For the children and grandchildren who decide to stay on the farm, succession planning becomes a major obstacle. Interestingly, the article points out that with improvements in both health care and farm mechanization, farmers can work past the age of 65 In many cases, the farm’s children are in their 40’s or 50’s before farm gets passed to them spending decades as a “farm hand.” This point highlights the importance of transferring the farm management gradually over the years.
Another obstacle is that a farm may be passed down to multiple siblings “leaving each with insufficient assets to support their families on the farm.” Some farms are not large enough to support more than one family- and that’s okay. But farm families need to be realistic about this. I encourage families to have regular, candid conversations about succession planning. Perhaps the farm can only support one family–and perhaps in that particular instance only one child has a genuine interest in taking over the farm/ranch. These things need to be discussed open and honestly.
Farm families are complex. And so are succession plans. Once a plan is in place, it’s reasonable that the succession plan will morph over the years to reflect changes in life and goals. So few of our children and grandchildren have an interest in taking over the family farm. If a farm is lucky enough to have children and grandchildren who have expressed interest in doing so, let those farm families focus on a smooth, realistic succession plan.
I am a trained mediator and do estate/succession planning mediations among farm family members. These types of mediations are best in person — although I am also available for virtual mediation via Skype.